The life of a travel writer may look glamorous, but there's a lot more to the job than lounging in exotic locales. Organized press trips and customized “familiarization” junkets feature rigorous schedules that last from sunrise until well into the evening, attempting to squeeze as much as possible in to give writers the best sense of a destination.
While the pace can be grueling, the rewards are priceless: visiting places around the world that you previously only dreamed about, meeting incredibly interesting people, and getting to know yourself a bit better along the way, too. Here's how to get started.
Any writer—no matter the genre—should read constantly. Get your hands on as many travel magazines, blogs, and guidebooks as you can. When a story touches you, dissect it to find out why. Did the author bring the destination to life through the people he met, through descriptions of the landscape, using captivating photos? Create a scrapbook of your favorite stories and refer to them for inspiration.
Most new travel writers think they should begin by pitching stories about far-away places—the exotic destinations they are most interested in visiting themselves—but that's not the best way to begin. The most effective thing you can do to launch your travel-writing career is to bring your hometown, state, or region to life for others. Write what you know. It might be your hometown, but lots of visitors need to have a game plan to explore it during their visit. Newspaper, magazine, website, and guidebook editors all appreciate that sort of boots-on-the-ground expertise. By covering what you know best, you'll position yourself as an expert, capture editors' attention, and catapult your career.
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Tell a Story
Every article should have a narrative thread. Use anecdotes and quotes to recreate the scene your readers—the classic “show, don't tell” writing mantra. Those details help transform the destination you're writing about from words on a page to a vivid place in the reader's mind.
As a travel writer, it's your job to get to know the people in the industry in your target market. For example, if you want to become an expert in theme park vacations, start networking with public relations executives at every theme park on the planet. Reach out to attraction engineer, area hotels, and other experts covering that beat. Become an integral member of that community yourself and you'll be right there as trends unfold.
Know That a “Free” Trip Isn't Free
Most people dream about becoming a travel writer because they think their life will consist of one free trip after another. Publicists do often invite credentialed authors—and those with official assignments—on press trips, and destination visitor bureaus and chambers of commerce often host these trips, as do some hotels and resorts. Accommodations and most meals are usually included in the trip, but airfare is often only comped if you have an assignment from a compelling enough publication. (Many press trip organizers still only want to host writers representing glossy travel magazines with high circulation numbers.) You generally have to get to and from the airport yourself, tip the bellmen and waitresses, and pay for any excursions that aren't part of the sponsored trip. If you don't generate enough assignments, that free trip will end up costing you money.
Press trips are often hyper-scheduled because the organizing publicist wants you to see what her client wants you to see. There is very little time for self-guided exploration. You're also traveling with a group of journalists, so you're all seeing the same things. You'll need to be creative to spin your ideas from the trip into interesting concepts for stories that editors will be interested in.
Learning the Skills
If travel writing still sounds like a career you'd like to explore, learn what it takes to build your own career from experts:
Some experienced travel writers, like Kristine Hansen, offer customized one-on-one coaching. Kristine—who writes for Fodors.com, TIME, American Airlines' inflight magazine, Wine Enthusiast, Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, and National Geographic Traveler—offers a weeklong ecourse to help you learn how to come up with ideas, write query letters, target the right editors, and land assignments. With Ms. Hansen's daily feedback, you'll start at zero on Monday and have a strong idea ready to pitch to editors by Friday. Learn more about the Boarding Pass e-course.
MediaBistro, a leader in online and in-person education for writers of all genres, regularly offers travel-writing courses taught by established professionals. Most courses are offered in New York City or online. Check MediaBistro's schedule for current classes.
Finally, Matador University hosts online courses in travel writing, travel photography, and travel filmmaking. You can sample the courses for a few dollars or invest a few hundred in a 12-week course that includes online lectures, assignments, and faculty feedback. Matador also promotes press trip opportunities to its students.
Andrea M. Rotondo is a writer based in New York City. She covers cruise and luxury travel trends for Fodors.com, Condé Nast Traveler, Cruise Critic, and other websites and magazines. She also teaches travelers how to leverage their frequent flyer miles at FrequentFlyerToolkits.com.